by Kate PembertonOn a rainy and cold Monday morning, supposedly the ‘most depressing day of the year’, I set out to visit the Migrant English Project at the Cowley Club in Brighton, which helps refugees and asylum seekers. Outside, the world wallowed in post-Christmas blues. Inside, an urn was heating for tea and coffee, while a group of volunteers and students slowly filled the room with the hum of conversation and a warm, friendly atmosphere.
The Migrant English Project (MEP) is an independent volunteer-led organisation in Brighton that helps refugees and asylum seekers by offering free English lessons. It was set up in 2003 by a small group of people who wanted to counteract the politics of state borders and migration, and help migrants in practical terms. 13 years on, the project is still providing a vital service, offering migrants a welcoming, safe environment to learn English. Lessons take place all day on a Monday with a vegan cooked lunch in between. As well as teaching English and cooking, volunteers are also on hand to advise students with any personal issues they may be experiencing.
I had the opportunity to join the MEP for their morning session and lunch. I met up with lead cooking volunteer Kate Holder, who told me all about the project while she cooked with Paul, another volunteer. After receiving and sorting through the FareShare delivery – crates filled with peppers, oranges, beans, aubergines, onions, and kohlrabi – Kate showed me the small kitchen where volunteers cook for up to 50 people each week. I chatted to Kate and Paul while they began to prepare Chermoula, a Persian dish with aubergine – I hadn’t heard of it but was told it was delicious – and it certainly was!
An antidote to negativity
Kate was recognized in the 2016 Brighton and Hove Happy List for her work providing cookery classes for migrants, and is committed to combating the “awful negativity and dehumanizing language” surrounding refugees and asylum seekers in the media. Having worked with refugees in Kenya, Kate described how she thought “what a daunting prospect it must be to come from somewhere like a refugee camp to suddenly being in Portslade” for example. Kate got involved with the MEP after wanting to help refugees locally but not getting much response; “I thought what I could do is come and do some cooking”.
“You really feel how comfortable people seem”
Paul told me how he wanted to do something after seeing a lot of things in the media about migration, and because he knew people who had come to the UK from abroad. Like Kate, he wanted to combat the negativity that is often directed at migrants. He told me one of the best things about the MEP is the atmosphere and the safety of it, saying “you really feel how comfortable people seem.” Kate reiterated this, saying they were “really trying to create a safe space” for migrants, something that is at the core of the project.
Each week, FareShare Sussex delivers food to the MEP, which is cooked up by volunteers into a vegan lunch for students and volunteers. While English lessons are the main reason people come to the MEP, Kate told me that in a recent questionnaire the food was the second most important factor for the students. Ros, who has been volunteering for about 7 years, said “most of the people who come here are on very low incomes so it’s nice to be able to have food with them, and it also cuts down our costs”. While Kate said that they do go and buy staples such as oil, salt, pepper and seasoning, FareShare means the project gets a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. This means the MEP can divert funds to other services. The FareShare food that is not cooked with is also given out to students, helping those on a low income. While I was there I helped pack up bags with oranges, peppers and kohlrabi to be given out, something that the children especially were excited about.
“Most of the people who come here are on very low incomes so it’s nice to be able to have food with them, and it also cuts down our costs.”
Kate said it was great to get food from FareShare, as “it’s such a community thing – everyone here is really passionate about food waste.” She also appreciates the variety of food they get; “It’s great – some really interesting stuff that I wouldn’t normally cook with – I like a challenge!” Diane, a volunteer, also told me how they appreciate the variety of fresh food, saying “the surprise factor is great”. While I was there, some ‘cucumber melons’ were creating a stir, as volunteers and students from all over the world tried to work out what they would best be used for. Teresa, a woman who had come to Brighton from Chile, recognized the fruit and explained that they were ‘pepinos’, which can be found in Chile.
The importance of language
When I stepped out of the kitchen and back into the café, the room was abuzz with conversation, every table filled with students and teachers immersed in English lessons. I spoke to Summerly, a volunteer with a background in teaching who matches students to teachers. She said that with the current refugee crisis, the MEP is a good way to help. Having lived abroad before, Summerly knew all too well how important learning a language is for integration and navigating a new place. “I know how hard it is not having a language”, she said, adding that it affects your confidence and ability to be yourself.
“I know how hard it is not having a language”
Genet, a student from Ethiopia, has been coming to the project for three years. She told me how the project has helped her to improve her English, as well as make friends. She described how if she has personal problems, the volunteers are able to help. “It’s a wonderful project”, she said.
Looking around the room, a lesson was happening at every table. Even at the spot where colouring books and toys had been laid out for children to play with, a little boy was gleefully shouting “flower!” and pointing at the vases of flowers, excited about the new word he had learnt. At the next table over, his mother was having her own lesson.
A safe space
“What I like is it’s not just about the teaching – it creates a safe space.”
This inclusivity, and welcoming, informal atmosphere, is a crucial part of the positive contribution the MEP makes. Each of the volunteers I spoke to was committed to this notion of a safe space, a welcoming environment contrary to the often harsh world outside. Summerly said, “What I like is it’s not just about the teaching – it creates a safe space”. Students can just come and have a cup of tea or coffee and chat to someone. Jenny, another volunteer, told me “It’s about feeling welcome, feeling valued, making friends… What they get is the chance to talk to lots of different people and generally feel that this is a place that’s safe – like a family, a home.”
“It’s about feeling welcome, feeling valued, making friends”
The MEP is a space for teaching English, but also a safe space where migrants can get support, with volunteers able to signpost services. Summerly explained how last week she had helped a woman arrange for her boiler to be fixed and for her children to have bus passes. At a base level, the Migrant English project offers English lessons to refugees and asylum seekers. In practice, it is so much more than this.
The giving and compassionate energy of volunteers at the project is infectious. This project is one that runs off the passion and commitment of volunteers who refuse to accept negative attitudes to migrants.
Read more about the MEP’s work here: http://mepbrighton.com/publications-refuge-2/
If you’d like to get involved with FareShare’s work, click here.